North Island Road Trip: The Eastern Coast

After months of planning, and the inevitable countdown to the last day of work, we finally packed up the car heading off from Auckland for another three-week adventure. This year exploring the North Island, we began by heading South-East and following the coast down from Mount Maunganui to Gisborne. A beautifully beachy stretch of New Zealand dotted with surf towns, rugged coastlines and the occasional adventure along the way.

Night number one at Mount Maunganui, but first a couple of en route stops to break up the journey from Auckland. Marketed as ‘world famous in New Zealand’ you will be forgiven for not having heard of Lemon & Paeroa fizzy drink anywhere else. Essentially kiwi Sprite this refreshing drink has been paid homage to in its home town of Paeroa with a delightfully large replica (Big ‘things’ of New Zealand can be found all over the country from carrots to gumboots)! We took the compulsory photo here alongside a normal sized L&P, a fun side-attraction to the drive.

Shortly after Paeroa is the Karangahake Gorge, worth a longer visit for its many walking trails through forest, past the beautiful river and through abandoned mine tunnels. Opting for the shorter, scenic, Windows Walkway we followed old mine cart tracks through the lush forest, found ourselves high above the river in the tunnels, and crossed a gorgeous suspension bridge in the steeper part of the gorge. A worthy visit on any itinerary and followed by another gem, the Maclaren Falls.

Surpassing all expectations, the Maclaren Falls just outside of Tauranga, are an expansive melee of pools and cascading water. A mecca for swimmers and the occasional daredevil jumper, and for us a peaceful spot to relax in the sun and dip our feet.

Mount Maunganui is an awesome little town over looked by the Mount (Mauao) itself, with a cool vibe, plenty of shops, restaurants, and great surf. The must do activity here is to hike up The Mount, with the top giving spectacular panoramic views (top tip to head up for sunrise). Looking all the way to the Coromandel Peninsula, and the shining bays and inlets, makes the uphill trudge more than worth the effort. Another short walk to enjoy is the route out over the land bridge to Moturiki Island off the main beach. Hopping over the rocks at the far end gives wonderful views back toward The Mount and the golden beaches to the South.

An hour South we reached Whakatane a small unassuming town built around the river estuary, the gateway to one of NZ’s more adventurous day trips, to the marine volcano known as White Island. Cruising from the wharf, between the rocks and into the rough waters beyond, we passed the wildlife sanctuary of Whale Island (Moutohora). Briefly joined by a pod of frolicking Common Dolphin leaping in front of the bow which is always amazing to see. Looming in the distance the rocky and steaming white Island is an awe-inspiring sight. Having previously blown itself up the steep sides of the outer crater give way to the more gradual slopes and numerous volcanic features of the inner crater where, after docking the boat, we began to explore.

The barren otherworldly landscapes are captivating, guided to its most prominent features we learnt about the tragic past of the island. Many miners having lost their lives to volcanic disasters and accidents, thankfully now it’s just the tourists that step foot here and we were equipped with hard hats and gas masks. Mineral deposits create waves of colour on the bare expanse, and steam seeped from fumaroles as we intrepidly made our way to the main sulphur vents. The vivid yellow of the pure sulphur crystals indicating the site of the vent and plumes of steam billowing into the air for dramatic effect.

At the far end of our tour the crater lake sits some metres down from the rim, a milky blue/grey and steaming ominously. The water in the lake is 55°C and off the scale of acidic at a PH of -0.6! Interestingly, the lake water is rising so rapidly from rain and condensation that they think in 6 months the lake could overflow, flooding fumaroles and creating geysers all over the inner crater. That could be quite an event and we felt lucky that it was nowhere near overflowing for our visit. Meandering back to the beach we tasted streams of warm water flowing through, the first warm with a metallic taste owing to the high iron content, the second cooler but tasting like sherbet lemon because of the acidity, definitely not your everyday experiences!

Back at the beach the remnants of the miner’s camp are a haunting reminder of the fatalities, just a shell of the buildings remains. To end our volcanic adventure, before cruising back to the safety of Whakatane, we had time for a swim in the warm, salty waters of the bay, an imposing back drop behind us to finish an incredible visit.

The far East of New Zealand is home to the aptly named East Cape, a road trip rite of passage in NZ. Gloriously uninhabited and with rugged coastal scenery this is a bit of a detour but if time permits a great trip. The road takes you past the beautiful black sands of Ohope beach and out into nowhere, following just one road all the way round. At Waihau we found what seemed to be the only pub on the cape, for lunch next to sparkling waters and rocky beaches.

The real highlight of the route is the East Cape Lighthouse (the most Eastern point of New Zealand), accessed along a wild coastal road intermittently unsealed from Te Araroa. A short steep walk of over 700 steps takes you the final distance to the lighthouse. Perched atop the cliff stands the shining white beacon, surrounded by turquoise seas, huge headlands, and lush hills. Incredibly remote and enchanting if you are lucky enough, as we were, to have the place all to ourselves. This is also a popular spot to be the first to see the sunrise, but don’t expect privacy and seclusion at sunrise as its often packed with other sun worshipping revellers!

After staying in a wonderful campsite at Te Araroa Backpackers we set off the following day down the southern edge of the cape. This is a truly desolate place, we passed seemingly abandoned and dilapidated towns before the first real signs of life at Tolaga Bay. The small town sits on a huge sandy cove, skirted by rugged sandy cliffs. Jutting out 600m into the calm waters of the bay the wharf is a top fishing spot and gives great views back to the beach, as well as being the longest wharf in New Zealand.

From just beyond the beach the 6km return track of Cook’s Cove Walkway is one of the best short hikes we have done in New Zealand. The track heads up to the cliffs, through farmland, with far reaching views of the sprawling inland hills. Reaching the pinnacle of the hike a small viewing platform offers your first glimpses of the cove where Captain Cook traded with, and learnt from the local Iwi.

Descending to the cove through the woodland we were serenaded by Tui and other birds, eventually emerging into the green pastures surrounding the sheltered inlet. To the one edge is the Hole in the Rock, a stunning coastal arch creating a window out to the Tolaga Bay waters. Straight ahead is the cove itself a peaceful tidal inlet with stacks of rock at its mouth, and gently rising fields surrounding us. Heading back the way we came seemed, thankfully, shorter and we were soon on our way again following the many beaches down to Gisborne.

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